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Our Readers Write: Pondside Vigil

The following essay was submitted to the Longmeadow News by Richard S. Ravosa, a resident of Longmeadow who lives on Hawthorn Street.

Every April, the Town of Longmeadow held the annual John Barkman Memorial Fishing Derby at Laurel Pond. About two weeks before school let out for spring break, teachers passed out mimeographed flyers with the date and time of the fishing derby. Rain or shine, it was always on a Saturday at eight in the morning. The watermarked image of the late Patrolman John Barkman’s bust was on the flyer. He wore badge number one and was beloved by the townspeople. When I got home from school with the flyer, I would show it to my mother and she would hang it on the refrigerator with a magnet so my brother and I could look at it every day and begin the countdown.

Laurel Park was originally designed by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead during the great depression, and abandoned because of it. The pond is sunken into the surrounding wooded landscape sloping toward the shore. The steeper slopes are on the opposite side of the parking area where the big kids fished. The gentle slopes were reserved for youngsters who used Zebco pushbutton combinations to cast their plum-sized bobbers into the pond, eagerly awaiting movement as mom or dad looked on with instamatic camera in hand. In the winter, the neighborhood kids shoveled the snow off the pond so they could ice skate and play hockey, but come spring, it was all about the trout.

For many, it was a rite of spring, but for us it was more. Up to about age 10 or 11, the night before the fishing derby was a second Christmas Eve. My brother and I readied our rods and reels and made sure we had plenty of tackle and bait for the big day of fishing ahead of us. We dug for worms in our backyard, but the real good worms came from our grandfather who had a huge leaf pile deep in his backyard near a brook, where you could easily score two dozen earth worms with the turn of a rake.

My little brother and I speculated on how many trout the pond was stocked with. We debated what species would be in the pond this year and how big they were, and whether to use a stringer or creel to hold our catch. We talked about the fabled catches of years past that grew bigger each year, of rainbow, brown and brook trout, and of course, talked about the ones that got away. We were always on the lookout for the kids who said they caught tons of fish using liver pellets as bait. The rumor was that liver pellets were what the trout were raised on at the hatchery. Other kids used fluorescent pink or green colored salmon eggs, while others tried their luck with spinning lures. The night before the derby, my brother and I would line up our rods and tackle boxes in the back hallway, then check on the worms in the refrigerator before heading to bed to toss and turn with eager anticipation, wondering what was in store for us in the morning.

After a restless night’s sleep, my brother and I rose before the crack of dawn. Breakfast wasn’t even a consideration as we loaded the car with our gear, including our three-year-old little brother. Dad drove the three of us to the pond in his ’68 Buick Le Sabre and for us boys, the Saturday morning we had been waiting for all year had finally arrived. For my mother, it meant a blissful morning of undisturbed sleep.

Although Laurel Pond was less than a five-minute car ride from our house, we brought enough gear with us for a week long fishing expedition. My brother and I unloaded our gear and headed toward the shore to find the perfect fishing spot and dad would take our little brother and go talk with his friend Sam, the suspendered, stout, stentorian foreman of the parks and recreation department. Sam ran every aspect of the fishing derby with an iron fist. He would blow his old policeman’s whistle at the stroke of eight to start the derby, but not before he walked the perimeter of the pond to make sure no one cast a line in early. One year, Sam caught a little kid with his line dangled unintentionally in a few inches of water before the whistle blew. “You’re all done fishin!” Sam barked, as he escorted the crying lad away from the shore and toward a policeman.

After the whistle blew, we started to fish, with our little brother buckled in his car seat between us. He looked on as he ate animal crackers out of a red cardboard circus train car box. When the crackers were gone, he would suck on and eat the cracker flavored cardboard. Throughout the morning, dad helped us untangle our lines, showed us how to set the hook, and walked our catches up to the check in table to be measured, so we could keep fishing. Our stringer would be stuck in the ground with our catch swimming in the water in front of us. We fished all morning. Each cast with fresh bait, was full of frenzied anticipation. In those days, nothing beat the thrill of a decisive hit that bent the rod into an upside down letter “u.” The exhilaration from the hit made the reeling and landing of the fish anticlimactic. Sometimes, we were so excited from the hit that we would lose focus and lose the fish, and our dad would shake his head, jerk his right hand up and yell, “you didn’t set the hook!”

One year after the derby, my dad filleted the trout and sautéed them for us for lunch. At that tender age, although we weren’t crazy about eating trout, we loved watching our dad poke a razor sharp knife through the anus of the trout and run it up the belly to remove the entrails that dropped into the kitchen sink and slid down the drain, all in one slick continuous motion. Then he would scratch out the bloodline with his thumb as we stood wide-eyed on our tip toes to watch him insert the knife into the gill area and remove the head. Dad gave us the fish heads to plant in the garden as fertilizer for the basil. He told us to bury them deep so Bootsie, our cat, wouldn’t sniff them out, dig them up, and bring them back into the house because that would drive our mother even more nuts than she already was about fish guts in her once pristine kitchen sink.

A few years later, my friend John and I went to the derby together. John drilled down deep into the subject of catching trout. As the derby approached, he kept a close eye on the weather forecast and the lunar phase of the moon. No matter what the forecast, John had reasons why those conditions were best for catching trout, and they all sounded good to me. If it was going to be overcast, John would have the reason why that was the best weather for pond fishing. If it was going to be clear and cold, he explained how that was ideal for trout fishing. If it was going to rain, he had sound reasons why rain was best for bottom fishing and how lucky we were that it was going to rain on the day of the derby. Fishermen are eternal optimists.

One year, when I was seven or eight, I won a prize for the biggest trout. It was a black Garcia fishing rod with red and white wrapping thread at the guides that I used until my early twenties. As we got older, winning prizes was not the goal. The thrill was wearing dark clothing and fishing at Laurel Pond the night before the derby, which was strictly prohibited. In our early teens, the night before the derby was mischief night for us poachers and it eclipsed the actual derby itself in terms of sheer fun and enjoyment for us. There was always a cop sitting inside a cruiser parked in the dirt rubble parking lot above the pond from about eight o’clock to after midnight. He would eat takeout on the stakeout from either Friendly’s or Rinaldi’s that was delivered to him by another cop.

The weeks leading up to the derby meant bugging our parents for rides to the sporting goods stores to stock our tackle boxes, vests and creels. Although the derby ran for four hours, from eight until noon, we brought enough bait and tackle with us to fish for days on end after the derby concluded. When we couldn’t get a ride from our parents to Stuart’s Sporting Goods in Indian Orchard, we would take the bus to Herman’s in downtown Springfield to blow all of our money on lures, line and leaders, saving just enough to pay the bus fare back to Longmeadow. John was good at convincing his mom and dad to take us to Stuart’s often. We would usually go at six. His mom would light a cigarette and turn on the radio, which was always tuned to the music of your life, WMAS 1450 AM. We would listen to Bing Crosby, Perry Como, Lena Horne, and the Glen Miller Orchestra as we sat in the backseat of the old ’67 convertible Caddy reading Field and Stream magazines on our way to Stuart’s.

Late in the evening on the night before the derby, we dug for night crawlers so they would be alive and kicking come morning when we would puncture our hooks into them to tempt trout. John had a technique of wetting the soil around seven to draw the night crawlers up to the surface by midnight. With his back turned to me, he would mix things in the water, gesticulating wildly like an ancient alchemist. After the mixing was done, the bait conjurer would turn around and pour the elixir out of a jerry jug over the soil, speaking in tongues as he danced a lively gavotte and hopped around on one foot at times. He wouldn’t reveal his formula, although I thought Dijon mustard was one of the ingredients he mixed into the worm-water that he called “slabberstone.”

One year, as we were walking back to John’s house from wetting the sacred soil, we ran into Father Phil from St. Mary’s Church. He asked us what we were up to. We said we were going to dig for worms later for tomorrow’s fishing derby and asked him to bless our shovels. The affable bearded padre shook his head, chuckled and said “Dominus vobiscum” as he made the sign of the cross with his right hand over our shovels. We thanked him as he went into the rectory and continued on our way, shovels over our shoulders.

If I wasn’t sleeping over John’s house, we would both go home to bed, and then sneak out of the house around 11:30 and meet up at the dig site. We would wait in the pitch darkness where we soaked the ground hours ago. At the stroke of midnight, we shined our red flashlights on the ground, teeming with thick, squirming, night crawlers that we scampered to grab and toss in our coffee cans and cardboard boxes half filled with moistened soil. After collecting our crawlers, we headed home to sleep, setting our alarm clock and back up alarm clock.

One year after midnight, instead of going home to sleep after we caught crawlers, we walked down the sidewalk on Laurel Street to check things out at the pond. On that early April night, there was no moon and no wind.

The pond was a smooth, stock-still sheet of black glass. We sat on the grass just off the sidewalk and above the pond. Across the water in the distance and to the right, was the dirt parking lot where a police cruiser was parked. To the left of the pond were thick woods which lead to the backyards of the well-kept homes on Westmoreland Avenue. John and I speculated that maybe this year, the cops just parked and locked a cruiser there with no one inside, as a deterrent. Either no cop was in the cruiser, or he was asleep because the cruiser was dark and the engine was not running.

All was quiet in the pitch darkness until the silence broke with the cracking of sticks underfoot. The voice coming from the woods was attempting to whisper but was entirely audible. Although we couldn’t see anyone, we knew immediately who it was just from the sound of his husky voice. As the four silhouettes emerged from the woods, we knew them all. Paul, Mark, Tom and Jonathan, rods in hand, careened down the embankment toward the shore like they were storming the beach at Normandy. Four sinkers plunked into the water one after another, that caused a faint echo to travel behind the waterfall and deep into the leafy dingle behind the pond. Within seconds of their casts, we heard the trout caught on their lines splashing vigorously. As they continued reeling, tailfins slapping the surface of the pond sounded like rounds fired from machine guns. Youthful vigor was on display at both ends of the line, with the boys and the trout equally full of piss and vinegar.

The poachers reeled in fish after fish and dropped them inside a white five gallon pail filled halfway up with pond water. They guffawed and spoke haughtily to each other as if the Town of Longmeadow stocked the pond just for them. We couldn’t stand watching any longer and had to join them, and John was just dying to use his pocket fisherman that was strung over his shoulder. Just as we stood up to walk over to them, the cruiser lit up like the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center. The blue and white bubble gum machine roof lights rotated wildly and bounced off the trees which created the effect of being inside a carnival fun house. As the siren blared, the four of them bugged out like it was all part of the plan.

The high-beams shot across the water to the opposite shore and illuminated the four teens scrambling up the hill with rods, reels and their catch in tow. Jonathan ran and carried the white pail as adroitly as he could, although he lost some water, and a few fish that flew out of the pail flopped their way back into the pond. Determined not to get bagged, they bolted pell-mell through the woods into the cool, dry spring night. The eight sprinting feet snapped the fallen underbrush and sounded like corn kernels popping out of control over a piping hot stove.

The door mounted spotlight panned over in our direction and the engine started as we began to run. The cop revved his engine, redlining it. He repeatedly floored the gas pedal to intimidate us, but that only increased our adrenalin. As we ran even faster, we heard the transmission engage as the tires spit up stones from the bone-dry dirt parking lot that tinkered off the rear quarter panels of the ‘79 LTD police interceptor. We looked behind us, as the cruiser fishtailed after coming out of a doughnut and turned toward us, in hot pursuit. With its limited slip differential engaged, the spinning tires created an instant dustbowl that worked against the cop because he couldn’t see in front of his cruiser anymore, never mind in which direction we ran.

Seconds before the cruiser was about to hit a mighty oak head-on, the cop slammed his brakes, that plunged bolts of white light from his high beams through the thick brown dust into the ground. The siren continued to blare and through the bullhorn the cop angrily commanded us to “stop where you are!” He repeated himself from his stationary cruiser, stuck in the sandstorm, as we fled up the hill, running with the wind in our ears like we’d been stuck with red hot pokers. As the cop resumed the chase, we turned into the dark flank of the woods and safely made our escape so we could fish come morning.